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Sun July 13, 2014
South Park City: The Old West Town That Never Was
Step off the boardwalks onto the dusty streets of South Park City, and you step back in time. Is it too much, then, to ask that a pair of gunslingers appear for a shoot-out?
This isn’t a Western ghost town – though you could fool some folks. It’s a museum in the old mining town of Fairplay.
And it’s nothing like the adult cartoon series on TV. No snarky little kids, crude language or dark humor. Just history that practically comes alive before you.
South Park City is a collection of cobbled-together buildings that epitomize the old mining towns of the late 1800s. It feels like it has been here for more than a century. In fact, the collection was started in the 1950s when a Colorado Springs lawyer, Leon Snyder, became concerned about the destruction and vandalism happening to the old structures in the South Park area. An avid fisherman who spent endless hours fishing the streams in the park, he conspired with locals to gather these old buildings and place them in one spot. A “new” city was born.
In 1959, a hundred years after the first gold strike in the area, South Park City opened as a living history museum. Local families scrounged through attics and basements, outbuildings and scrapbooks to dig up an estimated 40,000 artifacts, most of which are on display. Today, the collection has grown to more than 60,000 items, “if you count all the buttons,” says its curator.
On a sunny summer Sunday, with an afternoon rain shower building to the West, small groups of tourists wander the town, peering into buildings, venturing into a mine, checking out the train, and watching a film.
The film talks about the Ute Indians who hunted here, the mountain men who trapped beaver in the creeks, and the miners who flocked here when gold was discovered.
It also talks about Father Dyer, the “snowshoe itinerant,” who tramped this area spreading the gospel, performing priestly duties -- and carrying mail. There are displays in the museum about him, as well as others who left their mark on this central valley of Colorado.
Today, the museum also has more than 40 buildings that were original to the park way more than a century ago. There’s a smokehouse, the South Park Brewery, and Rache’s Place (a bar originally located in nearby Alma). Explore the purely fictitious Alma Queen mine – created to show visitors what a real mine looked like. Visit a pioneer cabin, a homestead cabin or the wash house to see how people lived.
A narrow gauge train sits at the depot, and a wagon barn, livery stable and blacksmith shop illustrate transportation from a less convenient era.
At the stagecoach inn, visitors can’t resist playing the amazingly well-tuned piano inside. I sat outside long enough to hear everything from a ragged rendition of “Chopsticks” to a quite lovely and practiced “Sweet Hour of Prayer.”
Aspen trees and wildflowers in shades of white, yellow and purple have grown up between the buildings, giving them the air of always having been there.
A resident cat rubs the legs of visitors, begging for a scratch behind the ears. If you do it, be warned: She’ll follow you the rest of the day.
South Park City’s buildings are filled with things there for the touching-- unusual for a museum, but giving visitors a sense of really being captured in a time warp. That’s one of the things that make this place so special – that you can touch the artifacts.
And if you can’t hear gunfire in the streets, well, you’re just not using your imagination.
If You Go
For information on the museum, including hours, fees and special events, go online to www.southparkcity.org. Or call them at 719-836-2387.
Linda DuVal is the former travel editor for The Gazette, a freelance travel writer and winner of several Lowell Thomas awards. She is the co-author of Insider’s Guide to Colorado Springs and writes a local Web site, Pikes Peak on the Cheap (www.pikespeakonthecheap.com).
Colorado Traveler airs Sundays before the Splendid Table and Wednesdays at 11:55am.